Cash-strapped consumers have turned up their noses at restaurant prices and turned their ovens on instead, creating a huge opportunity for c-stores. 

Gerry Hooper, ChoicesUK sales director, says: "Staying in is becoming increasingly popular. It's an already established inexpensive way of socialising and due to increased concerns about the credit crunch, no smoking in public places and more fuel price rises there has never been a better time to encourage customers to stay in, save their money and cook a great meal at home".

One category already reaping the benefits of this new trend is frozen food, which has seen a 5% year-on-year increase according to Nielsen, (52 weeks to August 2009). Tracy Blundell , McCain communications manager, says this represents a great opportunity for smaller retailers: "The convenience store frozen food category is undoubtedly benefitting from the current consumer trend for in-home dining. 

"Category growth is evident as consumers find solutions that meet their desire for foods that are filling, offer choice, practicality and enjoyment, but most importantly represent good value. Consumers need to feel they're getting quality foods which are also great value. If brands continue to offer a range of products that represent value for money then the frozen food category will continue to grow."

Tim Albert, Birds Eye senior brand manager, says that although consumers are looking to save money, quality is still key. "These consumers are not prepared to compromise on their quality expectations, which provides a significant growth opportunity within the premium frozen food sector."

In an attempt to capitalise on this opportunity, Birds Eye has released several ranges of premium frozen foods.

"Our 'Simply Naked & Natural' and 'Baked to Perfection' ranges meet this opportunity as each range offers consumers the highest quality presented in a convenient way, meaning consumers don't have to slave away in the kitchen for hours to get a great result," adds Albert.

Staple stimulus

Another category benefitting from the stay-at-home trend is that of pasta, rice and noodles, which have seen a 22% rise over the past two years, according to analysts Mintel, with much of that growth taking place in the last year. Mintel expects sales to reach £1.4bn by the end of this year and the trend to continue over the next five years, estimating that sales of the three products will hit £1.8bn by 2014 (source: Mintel, 2009). 

Pasta is the biggest seller with £811m predicted sales in 2009, ahead of rice (£388m) and noodles (£213m) combined, but rice is showing the highest growth, up 32% from 2007 against 21% for pasta and 12% for noodles.

A whopping 92% of Brits eat pasta, says Mintel, but 77% of them prefer it dried to fresh (46%). Only 8% of consumers eat organic pasta and 4% eat gluten- or wheat-free. For noodles, 49% of consumers prefer dry egg noodles. Instant meals, such as Pot Noodle, are eaten by 33%, ready to cook noodles by 30% and fresh by 26%. 

For rice, Brits prefer the long grain variety at 59% with 57% preferring basmati. Interestingly, there seems to be no brand loyalty in this area with 44% of consumers saying own-label is as good as branded.

Mintel analyst Vivienne Ihekweazu points out that global shortages have led to a hike in pasta and rice prices, but the recession has played a counterbalancing role: "Despite the rise in costs, there's no doubt that the recession has boosted the nation's appetite for these store-cupboard staples," she says. 

As well as cash-conscious customers, a greater interest in home cooking and the influence of global cuisines has helped boost sales. "Sales growth has also come from product innovation such as rice pouches and the introduction of microwaveable and ready-to-cook formats."

Obviously, all these carbs need a good sauce to complete the meal and these have also seen growth over the past 12 months with total pasta sauce sales up 12.6% year-on-year to £304.9m (IRI 52w/e 5 September 2009).

Saving cash also means cutting back on the takeaways, which has helped sales of ethnic foods, expected to increase to over £1.5b by 2013. Stir-fry sauces have seen a growth of 37% over the past two years (Mintel) with cooking sauces for Chinese food up 13%. While Indian ready meal sales are down 2.6% from 2006, there has been a 11.4% rise in the retail value of accompaniments since 2007.

Home movies

Of course, food isn't the only ingredient of a good night in your customers will need something to entertain them. Despite the growing popularity of downloading and ordering films on the internet, over 60% of DVD transactions are still done in person, according to ChoicesUK's Gerry Hooper. A DVD display can increase a basket spend by as much as £8 and will take up a relatively small footprint.

"A DVD display will not only ensure increased spend and consistent re-visits, it is the main point of difference between this sector and the major multiples," Hooper says.

ChoicesUK has launched a new installation that provides space for crisps and snacks to increase incremental sales. The company has also unveiled its 'Try Me or Buy Me' offer, allowing consumers to rent a movie and then have the option to buy it for as little as £1.99, providing the potential for two transactions per customer for the same product as well as having them return to the store for DVD return and purchase.

For those that prefer the electronic option, Mitchell Leszczyszak, account manager of DVD rental company The Movie Booth, cites the example of American DVD rental company Redbox, which launched in 2002 with 20 DVD kiosks and after just seven years has over 18,000 in operation thoughout the US.

Leszczyszak believes that the demand for DVD rental kiosks will prove to be similar on this side of the pond.

"The key benefit is the ability to offer a completely new revenue generation system without incurring any extra time or resources from the retailer," he says. "By offering movie rental, retailers are tapping into a market that has had an increased demand during the credit crunch."

So with the food and entertainment taken care of for your customers' quiet night in, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the increased sales.